The Islamic Hamas movement swept to victory over the long-dominant Fatah faction yesterday in Palestinian parliamentary polls, a political earthquake that could bury any hope for reviving peace talks with Israel.
The outcome, acknowledged by Fatah ahead of official results, would not automatically unseat Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate elected last year after former president Yasser Arafat's death. But he has said he might resign if unable to pursue a peace policy.
With peace negotiations stalled since 2000 and Israel and Hamas bitter enemies, interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could opt for more unilateral moves, following last year's Gaza pullout, to shape borders on land Palestinians want for a state.
"Hamas has won more than 70 seats in Gaza and the West Bank, which gives it more than 50 percent of the vote," said Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of the group whose charter calls for Israel's eventual destruction.
Within hours of the statement, based on results supplied by Hamas representatives at polling stations, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie of Fatah and his Cabinet quit.
Abbas asked him to stay on in a caretaker capacity.
Under Palestinian law, the biggest party in parliament can veto the president's choice of a prime minister, effectively leaving the shape of the next government in the hands of Hamas.
"Our lives will never be the same," Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "Today we woke up and the sky was a different color. We have entered a new era."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment amid reports that Olmert had told Cabinet ministers not to speak out before top-level consultations on the Hamas win.
Israel, the US and the EU have all classified Hamas, which has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in the Jewish state since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000, as a terrorist organization.
A senior Fatah official said it appeared Hamas was propelled to victory by a protest vote against years of corruption in the mainstream faction and the Palestinian Authority it controls.
Hamas officials held out the possibility of a coalition with Fatah and other parties -- and reaffirmed its commitment to what it calls armed resistance against Israeli occupation, as well as its opposition to negotiations with Israel.
A Hamas statement said Khaled Meshaal, its politburo chief, telephoned Abbas to affirm "a commitment to partnership with all the Palestinian forces, including the brothers in the Fatah movement."
But Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, rejected any coalition with Hamas, a group that Abbas had said he hoped to bring into the political mainstream and persuade to disarm.
The European Commission said after news of Hamas' victory that it would work with any Palestinian government that used peaceful means.
Although Hamas' charter calls for Israel's elimination in favor of an Islamic state, its armed wing has largely respected a truce negotiated by Abbas and Egypt nearly one year ago.
Olmert, who took over from Ariel Sharon after the prime minister's stroke on Jan. 4, has said Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that does not "fight terror" and disarm militants as stipulated by a US-backed peace "road map."
Despite signals this week that it might be open to indirect talks with Israel, Hamas said it would not change its charter or give up its guns, but would consider joining a coalition government with Fatah.